The Castle on the Hill

Gresham House, known today as the Bishop's Palace.  Galveston, TX.
I'll concede that the old Gresham House in Galveston does not crown a hill, but it can certainly pass for a castle.  Architect Nicholas Clayton designed the house (1887-1892) for attorney and legislator Walter Gresham and his wife Josephine in a mix of styles that historians call "Chateauesque".  Perhaps it was the heat of the island, or perhaps it was Mr. Gresham's wish to exhibit his newly acquired wealth, but the truth is that Gresham House takes the exuberance typical of Victorian Architecture to new levels, and is without a doubt the crowning glory of Broadway Avenue.

The Bishop's Palace.  View from Broadway.  Galveston, TX.

The sculpted granite, limestone, and sandstone exterior of the house seamlessly combines elements of French Gothic, Romanesque, Tudor, and Classical architecture along with details contemporary to its time.  Renaissance Serlian windows and Baroque Mansard roofs sit happily next to the crenellation, turrets, and gargoyles.

The Bishop's Palace in Galveston, TX is a National Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places.

The house is decorated with elements that speak of the family that commissioned it; Mrs. Gresham, an amateur painter, filled the walls with portraits of her children and mythological scenes, some of which still hang in place.  Fond of lilies, Mrs. Gresham had them painted on the ceilings, moulded in the glass of the Venetian Chandeliers, and carved in the capitals of the stone columns:

Limestone and Granite columns decorate the facade of the Bishop's Palace.

The house is appointed in the European tradition, with the ground floor equipped with the staff quarters, the first floor organized for entertainment and formal living, and the second floor reserved for private family life and sleeping.  In 1923 Mrs. Gresham placed the house for sale and it was acquired by the Catholic Diocese of Galveston, as a residence for the Bishop (thus the name Bishop's Palace).  The Most Reverend Bishop Christopher Byrne lived in the house until his death in 1950; during his tenure he made some changes to the house, in particular the conversion of one of the bedrooms into a chapel:

The Bishop's Palace.  First Floor.  Galveston, TX.

The Bishop's Palace.  Second Floor. Galveston, TX.

Mr. and Mrs. Gresham spared no expense when it came to the interior of the house, which is luxuriously decorated with intricate paneling and carvings of precious woods and stones.

The Bishop's Palace Library.  Galveston, TX.
The Library (above) is located across the hall from the Parlor (ballroom), and is appointed with painted walls and ceiling, an red African marble fireplace, and innovative pocket doors.  Each side of the doors is paneled in a different species of wood, to match the facing room.

The Bishop's Palace Music Room.  Image by the Galveston Historical Foundation.

The Music room occupies the northwest corner of the first floor, and is conveniently adjacent to the Parlor.  The walls of the music room and parlor are covered in silk upholstery.  A painting by Mrs. Gresham of two of children sits above the music room's fireplace.  The children are portrayed as angels alluding to their untimely death.
The Dining Room in a vintage postcard.
Most windows in the house are covered with interior shutters, this allowed for control of light and heat at different times of the day.  The shutters cleverly fold and store in pockets on either side of the windows, and when they are in this position they appear innocent panels.  At the time of  this visit I was working on a similar detail for a residential project, and I became very engrossed with these shutters!  I use every visit to a historic place as an opportunity to learn:

The shutters in open position.
The shutters in closed position.

The shutters are not the only clever piece of design in this house, the Stair Hall features a gas fireplace without a chimney, and a domed stair that doubles as circulation and air conditioning system:

The gas fireplace in the Stair Hall; a balcony whence Mrs. Gresham would address her brood, occupies the place where the chimney flue should be.  Image by the Galveston Historical Foundation.
The dome in the Stair Hall.  Image from a vintage postcard.
The dome atop the Stair Hall is crowned with a lantern (as any self-respecting dome should be), which in the summer months (along with all the other windows in the house) would be open to allow the hot air to rise and the sea breezes to ventilate the living spaces.  Galveston suffers from frequent power outages, during which the staff at the Palace opens up the windows and the lantern in the dome; we were told that this method cools the house in a more effective and pleasant way than the window A/C units now in place.  Unfortunately the process of opening and closing all the windows in the house requires a large staff, which the Palace currently lacks.

The Bishop's Palace.  Section through the Stair Hall.
On the East side of the house, next to the dining room, is located a Solarium; which has a view of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  The Solarium is built of cast iron and glass, contributing to the mix of styles and time periods so expertly blended throughout the house:

The portico of Sacred Heart Church can be seen through the windows of the Solarium.

The oculus in the ceiling of the Solarium.

Sturdily built of steel and stone, the old Gresham house survived the Great Storm of 1900.  Local lore tells of Mrs. Gresham tethering herself to the porch columns with a rope at her waist, and pulling people out of the river that flowed through the street, and the rubble of the nearby church.  The Palace has since weathered many more storms (including Hurricane Ike, which caused quite a bit of damage) and stands as a testament of the prosperity and exuberance of the people of Galveston.

Image credits as noted, all other images by NPL


The Feathered Serpent

September 12th is a special day, and not just because it is my birthday, but because in Nicaragua, where I grew up, it marks the beginning of a week of festivities that celebrate "La Patria", the Fatherland.  This week, full of national pride, commemorates Nicaraguan independence (15th September, 1821) from the crown of Spain, and the September 14th of 1856 victory over Tennessee born, ex-confederate soldier, and filibuster William Walker who, taking advantage of the 1854 civil war between the Legitimistas and Democratas, set out to "conquer" Nicaragua (would be Cortez that he was) and installed himself as president of the newly independent Republic.

"La semana de la Patria", the week of the Fatherland also commemorates Nicaragua's "discovery" by Columbus:  In his fourth voyage, as he sailed along the Caribbean coast of America looking (still) for a passage to the Indian Ocean, Columbus was caught in a month-long storm that almost sank his caravels.  On September 12th of 1502 the storm abated as they rounded a cape which Columbus named "Gracias a Dios" (Thanks be to God) in thanksgiving of their deliverance from those "Honduras" (deep waters).  The cape was the first contact Columbus made with the Nicaraguan territory, which on 25th September of the same year, after landing on the delta of the Rama river, he claimed for the crown of Spain.

Pre-Columbian Idol at the Museum Convento San Francisco.  Granada, Nicaragua.

The history of the Nicaraguan conquest is as brutal and bloody as it was everywhere else in the American continent.  Most of the indigenous population was decimated by forced labor, violence, or disease.  Nicaragua today is inhabited by "mestizos", people of mixed Native and Spanish descent, who celebrate, despite the tragic demise of their Native ancestors, the discovery of their land by their Spanish fathers.  History is after all written by the victors.

The crypt of the Church of La Merced of Leon Viejo, where the ruthless Governor Pedrarias Davila "Furor Domini" (The wrath of God) was buried.  Leon Viejo was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1610.

Culturally very little remains of Nicaragua's aboriginal past.  Besides enclaves in the Atlantic Coast (home of the Miskitos, Zumos, and Ramas) it is extremely difficult to find people who can still speak the ancient languages, who keep the ancestral traditions of the Nahual, the Chorotegas, the Nagrandanos...but not impossible.

The town of Subtiaba and their "cacique de vara" (chief) endures in Leon; the 400 year old Tamarindo tree, where the noble chief Adiact was hung by the Spaniards, still stands in its main plaza, and is revered by the Subtiabas as a symbol of courage.  Subtiaba is the keeper of legends and myths. 

The Sun god still adorns the ceiling of the church of San Juan Bautista, founded circa 1700.  The image of the Sun god was meant to lure the Subtiabas into Christianity.  Subtiaba, Leon, Nicaragua.  Image by

The people of the diminutive town of Catarina, in Masaya, still make offerings of fruits and flowers to their deities; but Tamagastad and Cipaltonal have been replaced by Jesus and Mary:

Women in Catarina prepare garlands for the feast of San Jeronimo.  Catarina, Masaya, Nicargaua.
The people of Catarina prepare the altar for the festivities of San Jeronimo.  Catarina, Masaya, Nicaragua.

The volcanic lagoon of Catarina.
Across the road from Catarina, the tiny town of San Juan de Oriente is governed, like Subtiaba, by a "cacique de vara".  San Juan de Oriente keeps one of the most precious traditions of the whole country: Pottery.  It is through the pottery in the archaeological record that many of the beliefs and customs of the Nicaraguan peoples are understood.  The art of pottery in San Juan de Oriente has been passed down through the generations and is practiced by certain families and guilds.  Pottery exists there in many forms, from the contemporary to the traditional.

The Church of San Juan Bautista in San Juan de Oriente.  Masaya, Nicaragua.
Men from San Juan de Oriente travel across the road to Catarina to deliver offerings for the feast of San Jeronimo. San Juan de Oriente, Masaya, Nicaragua.

Over the years my husband and I have collected many pieces of this pottery, they remind us of our travels through Nicaragua and connect me to my ancestral past, to the Fatherland:

The carved "tinaja" or vessel (left) depicts a man offering maize to his gods.  The tinaja, a symbol of my heritage, appropriately sits next to an image of the ship that brought my husband's great-grandfather to the US.
This diminutive "tinaja" depicts the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoal, Lord of the East and Morning Star. It sits next to another Nicaraguan artifact and a glass pencil from Murano, Venice.

Another Feathered Serpent is represented on this cup, which today holds the instruments of my trade.

Of all the pieces we have collected none is finer than the Polychrome Ceramic produced by the Bracamonte Family.  Led by master potter Gregorio Bracamonte Nicoya, and faithful to the Nicoya and Potosme tradition (the original inhabitants of the region), the Bracamontes depict on the tinajas and tripods, scenes of daily worship and daily life, and the likeness of their ancestral deities.

I have had the fortune to meet one member of the Bracamonte clan, Francisco, whose ceramics are displayed at the National Museum in Managua, side by side with their pre-columbian predecessors.  Francisco, who learned  the trade from his uncle Gregorio, turns the pottery wheel at his humble home and studio down the street from the church of San Juan Bautista.

Mr. Bracamonte explains to us the process of turning clay into tripods.

He then bathes the tripods with a coat of watery clay.

 Like their ancestors, the Bracamontes adorn their pottery with images of nature: stylized birds, frogs, jaguars; but the most prominent image is ever the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoal: 

Feathered Serpents on the pottery of Francisco Bracamonte.

According to Mayan mythology the Feathered Serpent mixed his blood with corn to make the flesh of the first humans.  Nahual myths tell us that Quetzalcoal taught humans the art of agriculture and commerce.  The Feathered Serpent had many incarnations (from Canada to Peru) and was associated with the spiritual world and the rebirth of nature; in his body the sky, (quetzal bird) becomes one with the earth (the serpent coatl).  He has been called "god of the waters and the wind", "Lord of the East", "the creator", "prophet and priest", "morning star". 

Quetzalcoal guards the waters of the Asososca lagoon.  Managua, Nicaragua.

In Mesoamerica the myth of Quetzalcoal reached messianic proportions.  Legend told of a white skinned king-priest who, disillusioned with people, abandoned his sacred city and disappeared into the waters; but first, like the sun, he promised to return from over the ocean in the East.  Many an aboriginal chief hesitated before the conquistadors, fearful to turn away a possible child of the Feathered Serpent.  And so it was that after centuries of protection, the progeny of Quetzalcoal became the Nahuals's demise.

On this day of my birth, when Nicaragua celebrates her discovery, her birth into "mestizaje", I too celebrate my blended past.  To deny the Spaniards would be to deny my father, to deny the Chorotegas would deny my mother.  My veins carry the blood of Pedrarias, but my heart beats with the strength of Tezoatega.



In Defense of Drawing

This installment is a reaction to a post published in Life of an Architect by Dallas architect Bob Borson. Mr. Borson is the author of a very witty and insightful blog about his experiences in the field of Architecture, and as such he has become very popular on the Internet, receiving (it seems) a large amount of fan mail, in which sometimes the readers ask for advice. In his most recent post he addresses (one of) the questions that he is constantly posed: "How good do you need to be at drawing if you want to become an architect".

Mr. Borson answers by lightly bemoaning the fact that drawing (in the architecture field) is on its way to extinction, thanks to the proliferation of CAD and others like it; he is quick to  note that drawing is a skill, not an art, that can be developed with a little training and practice, and that architects don't need to produce masterpieces to communicate effectively. He then illustrates with his own drawings how unspecial architectural drawing really is, in an effort not to discourage his young  aspiring readers.  Finally, he poses a question to the reader.  I initially intended to respond to Mr. Borson on the comments section of his blog until I realized that my answer would be far too long.  Mr. Borson asks: 

"What do you think about sketching? Is it important at all, is it a skill that you think will benefit your role as architect? What would you tell the high school kid who sends me the email that reads: “How can I be an architect – I can’t draw?”

Drawing after Bernini.  Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  Rome, Italy.  Pencil on Fabriano card stock.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.
Mr. Borson insists in his post that his drawings are really not extraordinary, but I would argue the contrary: Mr. Borson's drawings are elegant, precise, and economic, all desirable qualities in an architectural drawing. Mr. Borson's lines are drawn in one single stroke without hesitation, and finished with a sharp snap that denotes confidence in what is depicted and confidence in one's own hand; this confidence, elegance, precision, can only be acquired with rigorous practice and discipline, particularly if we are to believe Mr. Borson's claim that he is not endowed with innate artistic talent.

I love to draw, so it will not come as a surprise that I think drawing is extremely important for the education of an architect.  However, it is not my love of drawing that moves me to advocate for it, but my own education in it.  I attended a school in which drawing was a daily occurrence.  Students were judged on the quality of their lines as much as in the quality of their creations.  Our examples were the wonderful plates created by students of the Ecole de Beaux Arts and the architects who won the Grand Prix de Rome; and though innate talent was not a requirement (as Mr. Borson notes), discipline and determination was a necessity if we wanted to live up to such high standards.

Student work.  Pencil and Watercolor on card stock.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.

The School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame is a unique place, and in the many years since I received my degree I have come to realize that the skills I learned under the Dome are also unique and rare.  The daily discipline of drawing taught me to see the world in a different way.  When I take a photograph of something I like I may preserve its likeness for posterity but I learn nothing in the process; when instead I draw a subject from life I am forced to observe it, to analyze it, to become intimately acquainted with it, and to learn from it.

After Michelangelo's "Lo Schiavo Morente" Musee du Louvre.  Paris, France.  Ink on paper with white chalk. 
Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.

The purpose of this discipline, as drawing is, is not to create a work of art but to exercise my brain, to engage it in that most difficult of activities which is to understand what one sees and guide one's hand to translate it to paper.  Many of my drawings are left unfinished (like the Schiavo above and the Torso below), this is because I stay at museums until closing time, which is usually before I am finished, or rude tourists elbow me out of the way so they can take pictures; more often however, these seemingly unfinished drawings represent studies, autodidact attempts at a new technique or a new understanding, like the drawing of the Dying Gladiator that I posted in The Challenge .  Drawing from Michelangelo, Bernini, or the ancients, for example, has taught me not only about the beauty of the human body, but also about movement, strength, tension, and the intricacies of shade and shadow.

After "Il Torso del Belvedere"  Vatican Museums.  Rome, Italy.  Ink on Amalfi paper.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.

The study of perspective has made me aware of how buildings frame views and shape our environment; the constant question asked by my professors of "how does a building meet the ground, how does it meet the sky?" is answered with perspectival exercises:

The vignette above brings me to another important aspect of my pictorial education: Color.  While I had dabbled in watercolor from a very tender age, it wasn't until I arrived in Rome and studied under renowned artist Richard Piccolo that I fully understood how one manipulates beads of colored water into pictures.  Though my watercolors have not yet achieved the boldness of Piccolo's work or the luminosity of David Mayernik's, watercolor has taught me about light, depth, transparency, opacity, and of course color and texture; and I have been able to apply this knowledge to other media:

After Titian's "Wisdom.  Biblioteca Marciana.  Venice, Italy.  Oil on canvas.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.

All this "studying from the Old Masters", all this exercise and discipline have had a great impact in my daily work; I have become keenly aware of detail, of composition (even on wall sections!) of perfection.  These skills allow me to organize my ideas into designs with a facility that no SketchUp or Revit can mimic.  And while computers are great tools (which I also use every day) with which one can create photo realistic renderings, there is no substitute for the human brain and hand, and humility apart, many people can click away but not every body has the skills to do what Mr. Borson and I can do.

Watercolor and oil painting are time consuming and therefore cost prohibiting for daily practice; but the lessons learned throughout the years allow me to master other media with which I can create quick expressive drawings to illustrate my ideas, persuade a client, explain a solution, or instruct a wood carver:

Design for a modified "Tower of the Winds" capital.  Pencil on vellum.  NPL for Curtis and Windham Architects.

Proposal for a new residence in Houston.  Magic markers on vellum.  NPL for Curtis and Windham Architects.
Proposal for the restoration and alteration of a Houston family's 100 year old stables.  Magic markers on vellum. 
Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.

I would say to the high school students who want to study architecture but think they can't draw, that they should remember how the great monuments of Architecture were created by individuals whose first contact with the art of building was by drawing, and if we intend to follow in their footsteps we should apply ourselves in equal fashion, whether through school curriculum or private discipline, to the rigours, challenges, and rewards of drawing. 

Drawing is the vehicle, and with drawings we build.  We take a simple sketch and turn into reality:

Proposal for a new garden and garden Loggia.  Houston.  Magic markers on vellum.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.
Pergola Ceiling Study.  Ink on vellum.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.
A new garden in Houston.  Nadia Palacios Lauterbach.
All noted images are the intellectual property of NPL.  All other images courtesy of Curtis and Windham Architects.



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